Evaluating humanitarianism

I came to Dara because I wanted to experience the humanitarian sector and see what it really represents in practical terms. Collectively, the classes I took at Dickinson over the past few months forced me to think about global justice as an opposition to humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is nice – it’s nice branding, the packaging includes good intentions and alleges to correct the world’s ills; the word appeals and the institutions exist to legitimize it. But in many ways it comprises blanket solutions through feel-good institutions that are part of the very establishment that causes some of the world’s gravest violations of human rights and human dignity. Global justice, on the other hand, is less palatable. It’s more abstract, it lacks the same amount of legitimacy through institutions and it can be dismissed far too easily as nothing more than a regulative ideal. Global justice, theoretically, aims for the root of the problems humanitarianism tries to fix after their happening. Global justice comprises a belief in the need to address the structural factors that perpetuate those inequalities, injustices, violations, disasters that humanitarianism looks at as a field for its work. Global justice is about stopping occurrences that give humanitarian organizations a reason for their existence in the first place – it’s sustainable, it’s long-term and it’s just.

I do not want to speak on this assuming too much authority. I have had a little bit of exposure to the theory, giving me just the right amount of confidence and privilege to criticize and preach from an academic point of view. That’s all I can do, however. I don’t have an elaborate solution in mind and do not have an implementable agenda for global justice. The primary role of these reflections is to provide context for my skepticism of the sector I am part of during my two months at Dara.

What Dara – and many other similar organizations all around the world – do is evaluate the humanitarian programs of UN agencies and other humanitarian agencies, whether national or non-governmental. Through evaluations reports, we strive to promote accountability and impact in those programs. A laudable goal, but to what effect? Again, I do not have an answer, but reflection-level skepticism. The evaluation sector is not well known outside the humanitarian sector, so the role of civil society in upholding accountability does not seem relevant. Moreover, the evaluations we conduct, albeit with independent experts, are commissioned by the very humanitarian agencies we evaluate. No need to expand on that, but, of course, no need for ungrounded assumptions either. As I’ve expressed in previous posts as well, I think it is worth questioning what sort of impact lengthy formal reports have on the actions of humanitarian agencies and what power for change they carry. Large amounts of money flow throughout the evaluation sector and while its existence is necessary, more public awareness about the specifics it might uncover is vital to its usefulness.

It is important to note here that this skepticism is not a reflection of the work Dara does. Rather, it comprises more general thoughts on the entirety of the sector we occupy. Without assuming a spokesperson role for Dara, I can say that I believe in the integrity of the work that we do as one organization within the confines of the establishment we belong to.

My agenda is not to bring humanitarian institutions down to the ground. The world is a better place for their work. Even with the tiny scope of its work, the world is a better place for Dara’s work. The peculiar reality of the UN, as one example, is that it exists if we believe in it; if we pretend we believe in it, it might progressively acquire the integrity, recognition, and validity through which it could achieve its mission. Many facets of the idea of state sovereignty are an intangible construction. It is years over years of leaders attempting to legitimize their higher authority. Time, tradition, and enduring legitimacy are as important as the material forces that maintain state sovereignty nowadays. The prospects for some kind of enduring UN legitimacy are based upon similar factors. Conviction to this agenda, however, does not exempt the UN and similar organizations from criticism. I do not want to blindly criticize the work of those institutions, but too little criticism is harmful. It’s tricky work to simultaneously denigrate and champion the sole institutional players of global significance who rely on a belief in the abstract and the prospective.

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